Friday, 20 December 2019

CD Reviews - November & December 2019

Young Kentucky-born violinist Tessa Lark treads a well-worn path with the title of her debut recording, Fantasy. However, her choice of repertoire here is far from predictable, with three of Telemann’s Fantasies, and her own Appalachian Fantasy nestling amongst the more familiar Schubert Fantasie and Ravel’s Tzigane. Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was an incredibly prolific composer, and yet his work is still surprisingly often overlooked. The twelve Fantasies for solo violin are gems, and whilst clearly showing influences of Bach and Corelli, they have their own distinctive voice, and Lark gives us three of them here. The dark Grave of the first contrasts with its dancing Allegro sections, and the fourth has great energy in its outer sections. The fifth is perhaps the showiest of Lark’s selection here, but it too has a brief moment of calm in its brief Andante before the final dashing Allegro. In all of these, Lark’s tone is bright and full of life, and she brings out the challenging counterpoint and frequent double-stoppings with poise and ease. Schubert’s Fantasie for Violin and Piano is an extended single movement (at around 25 minutes in all), although it does have a number of distinct sections, and Schubert draws on one of his own songs, Sei mir gegrüsst for the basis of four variations that form the bulk of the piece, following a beautifully singing opening and a playful allegretto, with violin and piano in canon. Lark and Amy Yang (piano) enjoy the playfulness here, and both instruments have a lot to show off about in the challenging variations. Apart from wanting a tad more richness of tone in the opening, there is little to fault here, and this is definitely a performance of equals, with Yang relishing the rich textures of Schubert’s writing for the piano. Lark then follows the Schubert with a real treat – her own composition, Appalachian Fantasy, highlighting another side to her musical heritage as a traditional fiddler. With her violin retuned to produce the traditional open string double-stopping drones, she draws on the melody from the Schubert, as well as bringing in traditional Appalachian tunes, such as Cumberland Gap and Bonaparte’s Retreat, in a fabulously infectious demonstration of her phenomenal talent here. Fritz Kreisler’s (1875-1962) Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta, despite the mouthful of a title, is a typically delightful Kreisler encore concoction, harking back to the heyday of the Viennese waltz, and Lark and Yang give this warmth and a sense of sweet nostalgia. Ravel’s Tzigane is a bravura showpiece for violin, although again, the piano part is not to be sniffed at, and Yang rises to its challenges well. Lark throws off the virtuosic gypsy flourishes with appropriate abandon, making this a lively and exuberant finish to the disc. All in all, this is a highly impressive calling card, amply demonstrating the range of Lark’s talents.

Various. 2019. Fantasy. Tessa Lark, Amy Yang. Compact Disc. First Hand Records. FHR86.

You may have had the opportunity to catch Musica Secreta performing in the Brighton Early Music Festival, and launching their new CD, From Darkness Into Light, which includes the complete Lamentations of Jeremiah by Antoine Brumel (c.1460-1512/13), recently discovered by Musica Secreta co-director, Laurie Stras, in a Florentine manuscript. An abbreviated form of the work, consisting of just two verses and refrain, have been known and performed for many years, but incredibly, Laurie Stras found the complete set, with no fewer than an additional seventeen verses, hiding in plain sight in a sixteenth century manuscript. As a close supporter and friend of Musica Secreta, I can’t claim complete independence in terms of a review of their performances here (although they are stunning!), but this is incredible music by any measure, and the Brumel is joined on recording with a selection of music taken from a convent manuscript, including works by Josquin des Prez (c.1450/55-1521) and Loyset Compère (c.1445-1518). All the music is sung exquisitely here by the nine female voices of Musica Secreta, accompanied by Claire Williams on organ and Alison Kinder on viol. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Various. 2019. From Darkness Into Light: Antoine Brumel, The complete Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday. Musica Secreta, Deborah Roberts, Laurie Stras. Compact Disc. Obsidian Records CD719

The vocal ensemble Fieri ConsortBREMF Live! alumni, have released their third album, focussing on the music of Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), ‘Virtuosa of Venice’. This gives them the chance to show off their considerable talents in more soloistic repertoire, with works for one, two or at most three voices. They are joined by Toby Carr (theorbo/baroque guitar), Aileen Henry (baroque harp) and Harry Buckoke (viola da gamba), and Carr and Henry also present delightful solo pieces by Giovanni Kapsberger and Ascanio Maione respectively, as well as a beautifully delicate duet from Buckoke and Carr by Bartolomeo Selma y Salaverde. Strozzi was one of the most prolific composers of her time, and the selection of pieces here demonstrates her remarkable expressive range. Sopranos Lucinda Cox and Hannah Ely have beautifully clear and blended voices in the sweetly flirtatious ‘I baci’ (Kisses), whilst Ely’s pairing with bass baritone Ben McKee in the more racy ‘Morso e bacio’ (Bite and kiss) has suitably more bite. Meanwhile Cox joins mezzo Nancy Cole for the gently throbbing ‘Sospira, respira’ (Sigh, breathe). The entwined virtuosic lines of ‘Il ritorno’  (The Return) are delivered with great sensitively and skill by Cox and tenor Tom Kelly. Tenors Kelly and Josh Cooter have great fun with the comically melodramatic ‘Al battitor di bronzo’ (To a brass door-knocker), whilst Ely enjoys the occasional unexpected sensuous chromaticisms amid the dancing lines of Benedetto Ferrari’s ‘Amanti’ (Lovers), with its swinging baroque guitar accompaniment. Monteverdi’s sweet ‘Si dolce e’l tormento’ (So sweet is the torment), as well as Nicolò Fontei’s gentle duet ‘Dio ti salvi pastor’ (God save you Shepherd) receive expressive readings. The disc ends with the passionately moving ‘Lagrime me’ (My tears) from Strozzi, sung with moving expression by Ely, followed appropriately by Cole, Kelly and McKee singing Strozzi’s ‘Conclusione dell’opera’ with great warmth and tenderness. A wonderfully constructed programme, demonstrating the variety of expression in Strozzi’s music, as well as the outstanding talents of these singers and players – highly recommended!

Various. 2019. Barbara Strozzi, Virtuosa of Venice. Fieri Consort. Compact Disc. Fieri Records FIER003VOV.

First Hand Records have a fascinating project on the go remastering early EMI stereo recordings from the 1950s. The third volume focusses on music for harpsichords – not just one, but for most of the disc, four. As contemporary harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani informs us in his disc notes, the instruments of that time, known as ‘revival harpsichords’, were hefty beasts, with iron frames and pedals more akin to pianos, rather than the more historically faithful reproductions that the early music movement has led us to expect. Surprisngly, these weighty instruments actually were capable of much less in terms of volume, so in recording with the Pro Arte Orchestra here, the harpsichordists took advantage of techniques such as shifting register to bring out melodies, and lots of sudden dampening effects. The orchestra also has to play pretty quietly most of the time, even though the harpsichords would have been very closely recorded. And the four harpsichordists? George Malcolm (whose own Variations on a Theme of Mozart appears here) was a conductor and composer as well as a harpsichordist, and Thurston Dart was a musicologist, and key figure in the British early music revival. They are joined by two Australians – pianist Eileen Joyce, more known for weighty romantic piano repertoire, and Denis Vaughan, conductor and performer. The four gave annual concerts together until the early 1960s. Here they play Vivaldi’s D minor Concerto for 4 harpsichords (arranged by Dart), as well as Bach’s arrangement of another Vivaldi Concerto, and Bach’s Concerto for 3 harpsichords (with Vaughan on continuo).The orchestral sound is definitely dated, with smooth strings, and plenty of vibrato, although there is still a surprisingly light energy for most of the time, and the jangling harpsichords, particularly in the faster movements creates a lively soundworld that takes the listener along on an enjoyable journey. Following this are four short solo pieces performed by another harpsichordist, the American, Ralph Kirkpatrick. His playing is definitely less showy than the quartet, and he achieves more of the expressive potential of the instrument in the Sweelinck and Pachelbel in particular. The disc (very generous at nearly 85 minutes) ends with a Bach Cantata, ‘Bide with us’, sung in English by the Bach Choir and unnamed soloists, with the Jacques Orchestra conducted by Reginald Jacques. The singing – both choral and solo – is overly warbly and without the clarity of focus we would now expect in such repertoire. However, there is some delightfully delicate playing from the solo oboist and cellist in the second and third movements. Overall, a fascinating insight here into a different period in music-making, and well worth it for the Kirkpatrick and some of the livelier 4 harpsichord movements.

Various. 2019. Early Stereo Recordings Volume 3. Thurston Dart, Eileen Joyce, George Malcolm, Denis Vaughan, The Pro Arte Orchestra, Boris Ord, The Bach Choir, Jacques Orchestra, Reginald Jacques. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR60


(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, November & December 2019)

Monday, 2 December 2019

The RPO making sense of Shostakovich: a thrilling Ninth, along with dazzling Prokofiev

Kian Soltani
© Juventino Mateo

Kian Soltani (cello)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Alexander Shelley (conductor)

Thursday 28 November, 2019

Cadogan Hall, London







Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936): Concert Waltz No. 1 in D major, Op. 47
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Sinfonia Concertante in E minor (Symphony-Concerto), Op. 125
Encore:
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Music for Children, Op. 65 No. 10, March
Alexander Borodin (1833-1887): Prince Igor: Polvtsian Dances, No. 17
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): Symphony No. 9 in E flat major, Op. 70

Alexander Shelley & the RPO
© Nick Boston
'Shelley gave well-pitched introductions, supplying some contextual detail and listening tips with an easy manner'.

Glazunov:
'Shelley and the RPO took great delight in the swirling string melodies and sweet woodwind decorations, communicating a sense of fun and delight in its simplicity'.

Prokofiev:
'Kian Soltani gave an astonishingly commanding performance of this phenomenally challenging work'.

Shostakovich:
'Shelley and the RPO were on great form here, with Shelley setting quick tempi and the RPO responding with accuracy and tight ensemble'.

'The finale was suitably thrilling'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Kian Soltani & the RPO
© Nick Boston

Friday, 22 November 2019

Hefty Bruckner eclipsed by Norman's Grammy-nominated 'Sustain'

Gustavo Dudamel/LA Phil
© Mark Allan/Barbican

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel (condutor)

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Barbican Hall, London








Andrew Norman (b.1979): Sustain (2018)

Anton Bruckner (1824-96): Symphony No. 4 in E flat major, 'Romantic'
(1874, rev 1878-80, ed Nowak)

Norman:
'The cumulative effect, with ever-faster collisions of chromatic cascades swirling around the orchestra, is captivating, oppressive and thrilling at the same time'.

'The orchestral players ... were totally on top of the serious ensemble demands it presents'

Bruckner:
'Dudamel and the LA Phil certainly gave full weight to the climaxes, loud and full-bodied, with a particularly blazing conclusion to the finale'.

'A powerful overall performance'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Andrew Norman, Gustavo Dudamel & the LA Phil
© Nick Boston

Thursday, 31 October 2019

CD Reviews - October 2019

Lutenist Alex McCartneyhas brought to life the music of a composer who was new to him until recently, and will certainly be new to most of us too. Jean Paul Paladin (c.1500-1565) was originally from Milan, but moved to France around 1516 and worked for the courts of Francois I, Charles III of Lorraine, and even Queen Mary of Scotland whilst she was living in France. The music presented here consists of a selection of delightful Fantasias by Paladin, all of which have an emphasis on contrapuntal writing – that’s to say, a number of melodic lines working through the pieces at the same time, not at all easy to write, or indeed play successfully on the lute. Yet McCartney hides any difficulties that these present, and the results are full of remarkably smooth lines and subtle delicacy. He also includes various anonymous stately Praeludiums, taken from Hortus Musicalis Novus, as well as two ‘intabulations’ (i.e. transcriptions into tabular notation for the instrument) by Paladin of madrigals by other composers, Quand’io penso al martir by Jacques Arcadelt, and Anchor che col partir by Cipriano de Rore, followed by Paladin’s Fantasias on these works. These fantasias, particularly the one drawing on the Rore madrigal are full of beautiful lines and invention, and placing the relatively ‘true’ transcription next to Paladin’s imitation fantasias allows McCartney to demonstrate the fluidity of Paladin’s own writing for the instrument, as well as his own deft touch and ability to bring out the singing lines of this delicate music. Another delightful disc from McCartney, well worth exploring.


Back in April I reviewed Oli Spleen’s collaboration with Birdeatsbaby, Gaslight Illuminations. He’s now released his third single from the album, ‘Furnace’, with the B-side being a version of Brahms' ‘Hungarian Dance No. 5’. Furnace is the final track on the album, and it describes a psychological rebirth after the spiritual and emotional decline and death of the preceding songs. You can see the music video to Furnace, directed by Steve Johnson on YouTube (below), and you can download the single and album at olispleen.bandcamp.com.




(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, October 2019)

Saturday, 21 September 2019

CD Reviews - September 2019

Violinist Tasmin Little is joined by pianist John Lenehan for a glorious programme of works by Amy Beach (1867-1944), Clara Schumann (1819-1896) and Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944). They open with Beach’s wonderful Sonata, Op. 34. Beach was an accomplished pianist, debuting at the age of seven, but curtailed her highly successful performing career at the request of her husband, who preferred that she concentrate only on composition.  Her Sonata is full of lyricism and great virtuosity in the violin part, but, understandably given her pianism, the piano part is no slouch. Little and Lenehan clearly relish the beauty of Beach’s lush writing, as well as enjoying the virtuosity and playfulness, particularly in the quixotic Scherzo. There is as ever a warmth in Little’s tone that is ideally suited to this expansive music, and the flourish they both bring to the fiery finale is glorious. Clara Schumann was another piano virtuoso, but interestingly she had the opposite experience to Beach, her composing more or less coming to an end following her marriage.  Her Three Romances, Op. 22 were her final chamber composition, and these three short movements are full of rich melodic invention, with rippling piano accompaniments, particularly in the lightly playful third Romance. Dame Ethel Smyth was active in the woman’s suffrage movement, and her composition career was relatively successful (Clara Schumann was in fact one of her greatest supporters), although she faced much prejudice, her music being either deemed ‘too masculine’ or ‘too feminine’, depending on whether it was dramatic, rhythmic and powerful, or lyrical and melodic. In fact her Sonata Op. 7 contains both, with a dancing Scherzo and a beautiful, lilting slow movement, flanked by a richly inventive Allegro moderato, and a fabulously unapologetic Finale. Little and Lenehan perform with pace throughout, never allowing the more lyrical moments to become over indulgent, yet the pianissimo conclusion to the slow movement has beautiful delicacy. The finale is full of spirit, yet there is subtlety in Smyth’s writing here, so this is not just a throwaway finish. Little and Lenehan respect this with great attention to detail, but do allow proceedings to build to thrilling finish. To close the disc, we’re treated to two more short works by Beach, firstly a beautifully expressive Romance, Op. 23, with its heart definitely on its sleeve, followed by Invocation, Op. 55, equally romantic, but a little more introspective. Both receive heartfelt performances from Little and Lenehan here. With Little announcing her retirement from live performance earlier this year, her vast recording output becomes all the more precious, and this is definitely one to treasure.


During his tenure as composer in residence for the Bournemouth Symphony OrchestraStephen McNeff (b.1951) wrote a number of works for the orchestra, and for Kokoro, the orchestra’s new music ensemble. He has also written music for Ensemble 10/10, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s contemporary music ensemble. A selection of these works has been recorded by Kokoro, and their disc opens with Counting (Two), scored for an ensemble of solo wind, strings, piano and percussion. The rhythms are spiky and insistent, and there is a constant sense of energy in the fragments of virtuosic material passed between instruments. The central movement has a different feel, inspired by ‘an altogether different sort of ordered counting’, following a visit by McNeff to a war cemetery in Italy, and it opens and closes with a mournful, repetitive lament. Growing intensity builds to an outburst from the horn, before the lament returns. The rushing third movement brushes the sadness aside, concluding the work with a procession of winding material and persistent percussion. The Four Van Gogh Chalks are for a smaller ensemble, and open with a thoughtful, atmospheric impression, Mademoiselle Gachet at the Piano, with high violin, tinkling percussion and rippling piano and wind. Venus in a Top Hat is a quirky, slightly frenzied scherzo, and L’Écorché is darkly atmospheric. The collection ends with Couple Dancing, although their dancing is unsettlingly off-kilter, and ultimately collapses into nothing, the couple presumably exhausted from their efforts. The four pieces form a great miniature suite, performed here with great energy and precision by the Kokoro players. Next on the disc comes Strip Jack Naked, a vehicle for mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg. McNeff has written a considerable amount for opera and music theatre, and this is described as a ‘burlesque tragedy’ and a ‘contemporary comic opera’. The story, told in a libretto by comedy actor and writer Vicki Pepperdine, basically tells of a woman waking on her birthday and realising that people don’t like the way she now looks – so she embarks on a drastic course of cosmetic surgery, which goes horribly wrong with dark consequences. Lixenberg delivers the highly challenging mix of virtuosic singing, cutting speech and ‘Sprechstimme’ with startling command. The full work was performed on stage in 2007, and McNeff has produced a Song Suite, containing most of the songs, for this recording. The small instrumental ensemble adds moments of jazzy counterpoint and percussive emphasis, with some occasional chilling sound effects too, and despite obviously being a stage piece, this works remarkably well on disc, a testament to McNeff and Lixenberg’s impressive ability to communicate the chilling story. The final work here is Lux, for octet. McNeff explores light, how it changes and shifts, through eight sections that follow without break. The music has a spooky, ephemeral feel, fleeting and hard to pin down, like shifting shafts of light, and the faster sections have a strong sense of energy, assisted once again by driving percussion rhythms. The Kokoro players perform all this music with impressive virtuosity and clarity, and the rather dry recorded sound actually helps articulate McNeff’s complex writing, making this a fascinating exploration of his striking music.


Finally, in brief, another great recording from Edward Gardner, recently announced as new Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Here he is with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, performing three Symphonies by Schubert (1797-1828), Nos. 3, 5 and 8, the ‘Unfinished’. Gardner’s Schubert is quick-paced but never rushed, and there is a lightness of touch throughout. No. 3 has charm and Haydn-esque spirit, with a blistering finale. No. 5 is more Mozartian, and here Gardner infuses the ‘little’ symphony, scored for smaller orchestra, with grace and elegance, particularly in the slow movement, yet he gives the rather straightforward Menuetto a much needed edge, and the finale rattles by in a whirl of energy. No. 8 starts whisperingly quietly, and the woodwind melody emerges out of nothing. This is a fine performance, expertly paced, never feeling rushed, but equally never wallowing in Schubert’s tempting lyrical melodies, thereby preserving the crucial arc of momentum many performances lose, and the impact of the development section’s dramatic outburst is consequently all the more effective. The seemingly calm second movement has always a sense of underlying tension, which bubbles to the surface in the second theme, over a gently pulsing off-beat rhythm, which then bursts out in a full-on tutti explosion. The contrasts here are the key, and Gardner’s dynamic range is impressive. A great opening volume, I look forward to more.  

Uplifting Romantic giants from Ax, Rattle and the LSO

Emanuel Ax, Sir Simon Rattle
& the LSO
© Kevin Leighton
Emanuel Ax (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor) 

Wednesday 18 September 2019, 7pm

Barbican Hall, London


Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83

Encore:
Robert Schumann (1810-1856): Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 No. 1

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943): Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27




Emanuel Ax
© Kevin Leighton
'Ax and Rattle ensured that the balance between piano and orchestra were always controlled'.

'The warm, silky sound of Tim Hugh’s solo cello, combined with Ax’s delicacy ... made for an exquisite slow movement'.

'Rattle never allowed the surges of romantic passion here to get too carried away ... so that the impact of the brief passionate climax when it finally arrived was all the more powerful'.

'Rattle and the LSO, along with Ax, succeeded here in making an evening of such weighty masterpieces feel airy, uncluttered and suitably uplifting, a true pleasure to experience'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

A fitting tribute to Knussen in the Knussen Chamber Orchestra's Proms debut - Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 8

Ryan Wigglesworth
© Benjamin Ealovega

Knussen Chamber Orchestra
Ryan Wigglesworth (piano, conductor)

Monday 9 September, 1pm

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 8
Cadogan Hall, London







Oliver Knussen (1952-2018): ... upon one note - Fantasia after Purcell

Sir Harrison Birtwistle (b.1934): Fantasia upon all the notes

Freya Waley-Cohen (b.1989): Naiad

Knussen: Study for 'Metamorphosis'

Hans Abrahamsen (b.1983): Herbstlied

Alastair Putt (b.1983): Halazuni

Knussen: Songs without Voices


Waley-Cohen:
'A Copland-esque woodwind duet emerges, over glassy violin harmonics ... bringing this highly atmospheric piece to a quiet, contemplative conclusion'.

Knussen:
'Davies performed here with understated engagement, concluding with impressive control on the final sustained high notes'.

Putt:
'The repeating arabesque decoration is highly effective, as are the cascading, overlapping lines and the strangely keening horn and bassoon over flute flutters'.

'An impressive Proms debut from the Knussen Chamber Orchestra in a challenging range of contemporary chamber music, and a fitting tribute to Knussen himself'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.